Shah Wali Allah (Qutb al-Din Ahmad al-Rahim) (1703-62)

Shah Wali Allah of Delhi, the greatest Muslim scholar of eighteenth-century India, made an immense contribution to the intellectual, economic, social, political and religious life of the Muslim community in India, the effects of which persist to the present day. He lived during a time when the Muslim empire was losing ground on the Indian subcontinent, with the Muslim community divided and at odds. Seeking to give theological and metaphysical issues a new rational interpretation and labouring to harmonize reason and revelation, he tried to reconcile the various factions of the Indian Muslims, thereby protecting the empire from collapse.

Shah Wali Allah contended that the root cause of the downfall of the Indian Muslims was their ignorance of the sacred scripture of Islam. He initiated a movement with the theme 'Back to the Qur'an', and translated the Qur'an into Persian to facilitate its understanding among all the Muslims of India. It is believed to be the first complete translation of the Qur'an from the Arabic by an Indian Muslim scholar.

  1. Life
  2. Intellectual and metaphysical contribution
  3. Political contribution

1. Life

Qutb al-Din Ahmad ibn 'Abd al-Rahim, known as Shah Wali Allah, was born in ah 1114/ad 1703 near Delhi, a member of a distinguished intellectual and religious family. He received a highly structured education and spiritual instruction at the madrasa (religious school) established by his father, Shah 'Abd al-Rahim, at Delhi. As well as the Qur'an, he studied Arabic and Persian grammar and literature and the higher philosophical, theological, metaphysical, mystical and juridical texts. He graduated from the school when he was barely fifteen years old; in the same year, his father initiated him into the famous Naqshbandi order. He began his career as a teacher at the Madrasa-e-Rahimiyya under the tutelage of his father; after the death of the latter in ah 1131/ad 1719, Shah Wali Allah became the head of the madrasa, teaching all the current sciences at the school for about twelve years. During the same period he continued his own studies, growing in stature as a teacher and attracting students to his circle.

In ah 1143/ad 1731, Shah Wali Allah went on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), after which he remained in Mecca and Medina, the sacred cities of Islam, for about fourteen months, studying hadith (accounts of the Prophet) and engaging in intellectual discussions, meditation and spiritual perfection. During this time, he saw the forty-seven spiritual visions which form the subject matter of his famous mystical work Fuyud al-haramayn (Emanations or Spiritual Visions of Mecca and Medina). After making his second hajj, Shah Wali Allah returned home to Delhi in ah 1144/ad 1732. He spent the rest of his life teaching hadith literature and metaphysics and writing. All but one or two of his works were produced during his later years. He died in ah 1176/ad 1762.

2. Intellectual and metaphysical contribution

Shah Wali Allah wrote in both Arabic and Persian. He published between fifty and seventy works, including five collections of letters and epistles. His writings played a major role in the intellectual and spiritual life of the Muslims in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, a role which continues today. Some of these works have greatly changed the Muslim approach to the study of the Qur'an.

In addition, Shah Wali Allah tried to reshape Islamic metaphysics in greater conformity with the teachings of the Qur'an and the sunna of the Prophet. He adopted a more rational approach to the controversial issues of metaphysics, which led to greater harmony among subsequent Islamic metaphysical thinkers. He was careful to give a balanced criticism of some of the views of his predecessors and contemporaries. His constructive and positive approach to those issues was always considered a sincere attempt at reconciliation.

Shah Wali Allah made the first attempt to reconcile the two (apparently) contradictory doctrines of wahdat al-wujud (unity of being) of Ibn al-'Arabi and wahdat al-shuhud (unity in conscience) of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi. Shaykh Muhyi al-Din ibn al- 'Arabi, the advocate of wahdat al-wujud, was of the opinion that being in reality is one and God. All other actual and possible beings in the universe are manifestations and states or modes of his Divine Names and Attributes. By the act of creation through the word kun (be), Ibn al-'Arabi means the descent of Absolute Existence into the determined beings through various stages. This gradual descent of the Absolute Existence is called tanazzulat al-khamsa (five descents) or ta'ayyunat al-khamsa (five determinations) in Sufi terminology. On the other hand, according to Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, the exponent of the doctrine of wahdat al-shuhud, God and creation are not identical; rather, the latter is a shadow or reflection of the Divines Name and Attributes when they are reflected in the mirrors of their opposite non-beings (a'dam al-mutaqabila). Shah Wali Allah neatly resolved the conflict, calling these differences 'verbal controversies' which have come about because of ambiguous language. If we leave, he says, all the metaphors and similes used for the expression of ideas aside, the apparently opposite views of the two metaphysicians will agree. The positive result of Shah Wali Allah's reconciliatory efforts was twofold: it brought about harmony between the two opposing groups of metaphysicians, and it also legitimized the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud among the mutakallimun (theologians), who previously had not been ready to accept it.

Shah Wali Allah wrote about thirteen works on metaphysics, which contain his constructive and balanced metaphysical system. One of the most important is al-Khayr al-kathir (The Abundant Good). This work is divided into ten chapters, each called a khizana (treasure). The first four chapters deal with the reality of wujud (being), knowledge of God, the relationship between God and the universe, and human knowledge. From the discussion of human knowledge, Shah Wali Allah turns to the discussion of the reality of prophecy and the prophethood of Muhammad. In the seventh khizana, he deals with the rules and principles of sainthood and mysticism. The eighth and ninth chapters contain details about practical aspects of Islam, the shari'a, as well as the eschatological view of Islam. In the tenth khizana, Shah Wali Allah explains his theological view which, according to him, is in full accord with Ash'arite theology.

Altaf al-quds fi ma'rifat lata'if al-nafs (The Sacred Knowledge) is another metaphysical work concerned with the inner dimensions of human personality. Here Shah Wali Allah deals with the important questions of mystical intuition (kashf) and inspiration (ilham). He examines systematically the reality of both the external and internal perceptive qualities of a human being as the heart, the intellect, the spirit, the self, the secret (al-sirr) and the ego. A separate chapter is devoted to the metaphysical teachings of Shaykh Junaid Baghdadi, wherein he presents a brief historical account of mysticism. The last chapter deals with the subtle question of 'thoughts and their causes'. Shah Wali Allah specifies various external and internal causes which affect the human mind and produce thoughts.

Sata'at (Manifestations) is a systematic division of wujud (being), representing Shah Wali Allah's view concerning the tashkik al-wujud (hierarchy or gradation of being). Existence, in relation to determined being, is composed of existence and essence and has many grades, stages and modes. The particular beings in the universe provide the foundation for the claim of the tashkik (gradation) and kathrat (multiplicity) of being. Each grade or stage covers a certain area of determination and each stage is related to the next, not in a way that a material being is connected to another material being, but in ma'nawi (conceptual) manner. He describes the relationship between the various stages of being as like that between the lights of various lamps in a single room. The lights of these lamps are apparently mingled and are one, and are difficult to differentiate from one another; but in reality, they are distinguishable from one another because of the number of the lamps.

Shah Wali Allah's 'magnum opus' is his Hujjat Allah al-baligha (The Profound Evidence of Allah). This comprehensive work deals with both intellectual and practical aspects of Islam. The first part deals with metaphysics, scholastic theology, the gradual development or evolution of human society and the philosophy behind the divine injunctions. The second part is devoted to ethics, politics, rituals and the social life of Islam.

Al-Tafhimat al-ilahiyya (Instructions or Clear Understanding) is one of his most comprehensive metaphysical works. The work is divided into sections called tafhim (instruction). Both Arabic and Persian languages are used for the expression of ideas and concepts in this work. These tafahim (plural of tafhim) are actually Shah Wali Allah's mystical visions and experiences, and his letters and articles written to various people at various times in different contexts. The famous epistle called Maktub al-madani (Madinian Epistle) to Isma'il Afandi is a part of the second volume of the book. This article is a detailed description of wahdat al-wujud and wahdat al-shuhud, along with Shah Wali Allah's attempt at reconciliation concerning this controversial issue. In addition to the ontological discussions, the work also includes the author's cosmological, anthropological and theological views.

Another important metaphysical work is al-Budur al-bazigha (The Full Moons Rising in Splendour). The introduction deals with basic metaphysical issues such as wujud in general, the unity of God, the essence and existence of God and the relationship between God and the universe. Shah Wali Allah considers the universe to be a manifestation of the Divine Attributes. In the first chapter, he deals with the study of humanity with respect to its social and rational being. The second chapter is devoted to humanity's relationship with the Creator. At the end of the work, Shah Wali Allah describes in detail the reasons and causes for the development and evolution of the various shara'i' (religions or religious laws) and milal (religious communities).

Shah Wali Allah also tried to provide a basis for bringing the four schools of law closer to each other. His commentaries on the Mu'atta (a collection of the Prophet's sayings) of Imam Malik, called al-Musawwa (Arabic) and al-Musaffa (Persian), were written with a view to finding common orthodox ground for the reconciliation of different schools of Islamic law. Likewise, he wrote 'Aqd al-jid fi akham al-ijtihad wa'l-taqlid with the proposal that the door of ijtihad (judgement) is open. According to him, the experts of Islamic knowledge ('ulama' (religious scholars) andmujtahidin (legists) have the right to respond effectively to new situations instead of being perpetually bound to previous solutions.

3. Political contribution

A hallmark of Shah Wali Allah was his ability to reconcile opposing points of view to the satisfaction of each side. Standing behind this aspect of his teachings is the unity of the Muslim community or umma. His powerful abilities as a reconciler enabled him to provide common ground and a strong basis for co-operation and harmony between the Sunni and Shi'i.

Shah Wali Allah lived during a time of political and moral decline, chaos and destruction in the Mughul empire. His vantage point near the centre of the Muslim state gave him a clear view of the situation. He did his best to bring stability to the tottering empire and protect the Indian Muslims from disaster. Through his writings, especially his letters, he appealed to the Muslim rulers, nobles and intelligentsia to be aware of the dreadful situation and its possible consequences. His correspondence reveals many factors of Indian politics in the eighteenth century. His detailed letter to Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder and ruler of Afghanistan, contained a comprehensive picture of the political situation in India. Ahmad Shah Abdali heeded Shah Wali Allah's call to invade India and restore Muslim power to the country, culminating in the defeat of the Marathas and their allies at the battle of Panipat in 1761. Shah Wali Allah himself left a rich intellectual legacy in the form of literary works, well-trained disciples including his four sons - who also became eminent scholars - and one of the greatest educational institutions of the time.

See also: Islam, concept of philosophy in; Islamic philosophy, modern; Islamic theology; Mystical philosophy in Islam

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) Altaf al-quds (The Sacred Knowledge), ed. D. Pendlebury, trans. G. Jalbani, The Sacred Knowledge, London: Octagon, 1982. (A general account of the metaphysics of Shah Wali Allah.)

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) al-Khayr al-kathir (The Abundant Good), trans. G. Jalbani, Lahore: Ashraf, 1974. (Comprehensive discussion of the links between metaphysics and theology.)

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) Hujjat Allah al-baligha (The Profound Evidence of Allah), Lahore: Shaikh Ghulam Ali and Sons, 1979. (A detailed discussion of the links between theoretical and practical philosophy.)

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) Sata'at (Manifestations), trans. into Urdu by S.M. Hashimi, Lahore: Idarah Thaqafat Islamiyya, 1989; trans. into English by G. Jalbani, Sufism and the Islamic Tradition: the Lamahat and Sata'at of Shah Waliullah, London. (A systematic and highly influential account of being.)

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) Lamahat (Flashes of Lightning), Hyderabad: Shah Wali Allah Academy, 1963; trans. G. Jalbani, Sufism and the Islamic Tradition: the Lamahat and Sata'at of Shah Waliullah, London, 1980. (One of the important writings on Sufism.)

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) Fuyud al-haramayn (Emanations or Spiritual Visions of Mecca and Medina), Delhi: Matba' Ahmadi, no date. (A collection of pure mystical and metaphysical experiences and visions received during his stay in Mecca and Medina.)

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) al-Tafhimat (Instructions or Clear Understanding), Dabhail, 1936, 2 vols. (One of the most comprehensive metaphysical works.)

Shah Wali Allah (1703-62) al-Budur al-bazighah (The Full Moons Rising in Splendour), Dabhail: Madinah Barqi Press, 1354 ah. (Important metaphysical work.)

References and further reading

Hermansen, M. (1986) 'Shah Wali Allah of Delhi's Hujjat Allah al-baligha: Tension Between the Universal and the Particular in an 18th Century Islamic Theory of Religious Revelation', Studia Islamica 63: 143-57. (A clear account of Shah Wali Allah's major work.)

Kemal, R. and Kemal, S. (1996) 'Shah Waliullah', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 37, 663-70. (Account of the life, times and influence of the philosopher.)

Malik, H. (1973) 'Shah Wali Allah's Last Testament', Muslim World 63: 105-18. (A useful summary of his basic philosophical principles.)

Rizvi, S. (1980) Shah Wali Allah and His Times, Canberra: Ma'rifat Publishing House. (A discussion of the links between Shah Wali Allah's philosophical views and the renewal movement in India.)

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